Preparing an Advertising Portfolio of Spec Ads

How to Begin Preparing a Good Spec Portfolio

Reviewing a Portfolio
Reviewing a Portfolio. Getty Images

Preparing an advertising portfolio of spec ads may make you feel like an amateur, but Creative Directors at advertising agencies have hired their fair share of budding copywriters and graphic designers based on spec work alone. If you're fresh out of college or just wanting to get started in advertising, this Q&A segment answers real questions people just like yourself ask every day.

Q: "Some of my print ads are pretty simple and quite short and because they are text only, they only fill up a small portion of the page and therefore look a little 'blah'. I have used your idea about offsetting the page and using a designed background but there is still a lot of blank space. Should I just use bigger font?"

A: Leave them alone. Making your font a larger size isn't going to fool a Creative Director about the length. It's going to draw even more attention to a short copy block. It's like when we were little and tried to write really big to take up the page when the teacher asked for a two page report.

Q: "I am kind of struggling with other media besides print. Should I try and force an ad in a different medium just to be diverse or could I just stick with all print?"

A: You need to have other advertising mediums in your portfolio to show you can write more than print. Most agencies handle a variety of clients and create a variety of materials for them. Showing your ability to write other mediums proves you can handle any project you're given.

I say all this with caution, though. You don't want to bog your portfolio down with every advertising medium there is just to show you can write it. Be selective and realistic.

If an agency says it's looking for a copywriter to write commercials, you'll want to have content that's geared toward that agency's specific needs. If what you have in your portfolio is exclusively samples of print ads and candidates with your same experience have commercials in their portfolio, you'll be working at a disadvantage right from the start.

Never think of your portfolio as a completed project. Not only will you want to showcase your best work, you'll also want to gear your content toward the job listing's specifications. A listing for a copywriter to write commercials, for example, should attract copywriters with commercials in their portfolios.

Q: "A lot of my ads go hand and hand with the background of the ad, do I need to include a section, maybe in between headline and body, that describes what I think the graphic should be?"

You can always include some very brief info at the bottom of your ad that describes your visual idea.

Q: "Is it okay to copy and paste pictures from sites like Getty and I-Stock without buying the picture if I am only going to use it for my portfolio?"

A: Don't fall into the trap of thinking you must have images to go with your writing samples, especially at the risk of using copyrighted images. Creative Directors would much rather see a portfolio of solid copy on plain white paper than a dressed up ad with someone else's copyrighted images.

It can also be a red flag in a Creative Director's eyes. you don't want to raise any questions about your own ethics by using images they know you didn't pay for.

It may seem like a stretch but you'll be trusted with details of clients' company info, not to mention details of the agency. They need to know you're honest and trustworthy. Plus, if you're lifting images, you also raise questions in their minds that you may have lifted the copy and didn't actually create it yourself.

Let your copy speak for itself. You're not applying for a graphic design job so don't worry about including images in SPEC ADS.

Q: "I have compiled a list of every ad agency in [city] and have found out that all but three have less than 30 employees working there. Is it more likely for a smaller firm or a larger firm to hire someone with no experience?"

A: It depends on the agency. Most agencies are looking for someone long-term.

They can see you're just out of college but consider you an investment. You haven't been waiting tables 20 years and have suddenly decided you want to work at a large agency. Don't devalue your education.

Smaller agencies are also a great training ground. Target both types of agencies to get your name out there. You will find an opportunity for yourself.

Q: "I know that I can and will do very well as a copywriter, but I just don't have enough faith in my SPEC ads. Is there anyway to get in as a creative with just a decent book?"

A: Make your book more than decent. And I don't mean images and full-color printed materials. I'm talking good, solid, salable copy that shows your talent.

That is going to make your first real impression on a Creative Director. If your book is mediocre, the Creative Director is going to think this is the best you can do and they'll pass you over for someone else.

Stand a copywriter with some experience against a college grad with no prior experience. Put their books side by side. If the copywriter with some experience has a lackluster portfolio and the college grad has an outstanding portfolio, that college grad has not only leveled the playing field, they may even have the advantage.

Q: "I'm not being lazy here, I was just wondering if I could like request a writing test or maybe suggest that I will work for free if they send me a client they are currently working for? I just don't know... Coming up with 10 ideas that will wow the socks out of a CD has been very overwhelming."

A: Be patient and be persistent. A good agency won't release their clients' info to you until you work there. If you can set aside some free time, tell them you would like to volunteer your time to learn more about their agency and work your way into their ranks.

Bottom line: Don't let your nerves get the best of you. It's hard when you want something like an ad career not to stress over every detail. There's nothing wrong with wanting everything to be absolutely perfect. Just don't let that strive for perfection psych you out.